Liberals join conservatives in demanding Obama get Congress OK for Syria action

The opposition to President Obama launching unilateral military operations in Syria exploded on Thursday when dozens of liberal Democrats joined scores of conservative Republicans in warning the administration that any strikes without congressional approval would violate the Constitution.

In a letter to Obama, 53 liberal Democrats — including a long list of Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members — argued that, while the human rights atrocities being committed by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad are "horrific," they alone "should not draw us into an unwise war – especially without adhering to our own constitutional requirement."

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"While we understand that as Commander in Chief you have a constitutional obligation to protect our national interests from direct attack, Congress has the constitutional obligation and power to approve military force, even if the United States or its direct interests (such as its embassies) have not been attacked or threatened with an attack," reads the letter, which was spearheaded by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a former head of the CBC.

"As such, we strongly urge you to seek an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any U.S. military engagement to this complex crisis."

The message comes on the heels of a similar letter, released Wednesday by Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), warning Obama that "national interests" alone are not enough to authorize military force without Congress's stamp of approval.

"If you deem that military action in Syria is necessary, Congress can reconvene at your request," reads the Rigell letter, which has been endorsed by 140 House lawmakers, including 21 Democrats.

There is some overlap between the two campaigns; 12 of the Democrats signing the Rigell letter have also endorsed Lee's message.

The congressional pushback highlights the dilemma facing Obama as he tries to bring an end to Syria's bloody and long-running civil war.

On one hand, Obama faces increasing pressure to intervene on behalf of civilian victims amid escalating attacks, particularly since last week's alleged toxic gas assault by Assad's forces. On the other, Obama ran his first campaign for president largely on a platform of ending conflicts, not starting them. And an attack on Syria risks alienating the voters who are still holding him at his word — especially if it's done without congressional approval.

Lee and the other 52 Democrats said the proper response to the Syria conundrum is to let the United Nations Security Council "build international consensus" as the global community searches for "an appropriate response."

"[W]e should also allow the U.N. inspectors to space and time necessary to do their jobs," the Democrats wrote.

They may be running out of time. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that Assad's use of chemical weapons is "undeniable" and hinted that a response from the U.S. military is imminent.